Part 1: OUTSMART STRESS
Save Yourself from Stress
The American Psychological Association reports that 34% of Americans say their stress levels shot up in the past year. Physical symptoms that accompany stress are the body’s warning system.
A 2014 study from Carnegie-Mellon University revealed that people under significant pressure at work had a 45% higher risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Five Habits that Reduces Stress
- Take the scenic route. Any bit of exercise is a stress reducer, but strolling in nature is ideal. One Japanese study found a link between chemicals released by trees, called phytoncides, and lowered levels of stress hormones.
- Get more magnesium. This vital mineral is depleted quickly when you’re under duress. Without enough magnesium, people feel more emotional and reactive says New York nutritionist Dana James. Eat more dark, leafy greens (think spinach and kale), OR down a smoothie made with magnesium rich bananas, cocoa, and almond milk.
- Pull ears feel better. Hold your ears midway down with two fingers, in line with your ear canal. Gently pull both at a 45-degree angle away from your head and hold for 60 seconds. This calms the nerves that surround the central nervous system.
- Turn off the pinging. A British study of office workers found that when they read and send email, their heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol level spiked. Before you check emails again, ask yourself, “Can it wait”?
- Have a happy cry. Here is justification for watching heart-warming, Hallmark channel movies. Chemicals built up during stress may be released through tears.
How to Manage Stress
- Exercise is all-important. There are tons of papers written on the benefits of exercise and its effect on stress reduction.
- A balanced diet and adequate sleep are also essential.
- Getting lost in a hobby is a stress reducer.
- Mind-body techniques are especially beneficial. A 2014 Carnegie Mellon study found that just three 25-minute sessions of meditation, Pilates, yoga or tai chi can alleviate stress.
Research is mounting that a natural, potent source of stress release is right under your nose. New science is showing that slowing down and deepening your breathing can have a profound effect on your well-being.
Breathing exercises – a staple of mindfulness and yoga practices – have been shown to control blood pressure, improve heartrate, make arteries flexible and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Luciano Bernardi, an internal-medicine professor, whose research shows that slow breathing exercises improve exercise capacity in patients with chronic heart failure. “We’ve shown that this simple thing has a fantastic series of effects.”
Surprising Benefits of Deep Breathing:
- Happier Mood. Bernardi says that slow breathing activates areas in the brain connected with anti-depressive activities.
- Deeper Sleep. When people with insomnia practice deep breathing for 20 minutes before going to sleep, they woke up fewer times during the night.
- Less Anxiety. In a 2015 randomized, controlled trial, healthy women who did eight weeks of twice-weekly yoga with breathing exercises significantly reduced anxiety.
- Healthier Heart. In one small recent study, slow breathing sessions for 30 minutes a day reduced blood pressure in people with hypertension – and the effect persisted a month later.
- Better Air Intake. Breathing slowly helps you take in more oxygen. In one study, breathing exercises done several times each day increased oxygen consumption by 37%.
I think breath is the only function through which you can influence the involuntary nervous system.
– Andrew Weil, MD
Get in the Sleep Zone
Surprise: the secret to more restful nights may be rethinking how you spend your days.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 50 million and 70 million adults in the U.S. have a sleep or wakefulness disorder – the issue is so large-scale that it is considered a public health problem. Insufficient sleep has been linked to chronic diseases ranging from diabetes to depression.
When should you begin to power down and go to sleep? If you look at nature, when the birds stop chirping and most animals begin to look for a place to sleep, it’s time to also look for a place to sleep. “So there’s this natural window where, generally by 10, people should be asleep,” according to Valencia Porter, an integrative-medicine doctor.
Dr. Porter, her clinical practice at the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, CA, suggests not eating at least two hours and shutting off all screens one hour before going to bed. She also suggests taking a warm bath or shower while experimenting with aromatherapy. Lavender and chamomile are especially soothing. Another suggestion is to make an herbal tea and just sit quietly and observe your day. “Just observing seems to help people let go.”
Rubin Naiman, a clinical psychologist specializing in integrative sleep and dream medicine, says that the depth of our sleep at night is correlated with the amount of fulfillment we feel during the day. The more we seem to meet our daily goals, the more energy we have burned, and the better the sleep at night. In other words, being happy helps.
“A lot of people aren’t sleeping because they are completely sedentary all day.”
– Robin Berzin, a functional-medicine physician
Another essential in getting into the sleep zone is getting out into nature. The benefits of gardening are well known. 35% or 42 million Americans are growing food at home. Unfortunately, the growing season in most of America is a few short months. However, Vitality Centers like Wellspring in Yelm, Washington are able to provide mindful and essential fitness all year.
Dr. Berzin recommends that people get an app on their phone and your computer that filters out the blue light from the screens over the course of the day so that your circadian rhythms are not interrupted.
Can You Think Yourself Well?
“What if you had the ability to heal your body just by changing how you think and feel?”
– Lisa Rankin, MD
Dr. Rankin has come to believe that the purely physical realm of illness – the part you can diagnose with laboratory tests – is only part of the equation. Her personal experience with patients (as well as her personal background) has led her to the conclusion that whether they become sick or stay healthy might have more to do with everything else that’s going on in their lives than with any specific health standard they abide by.
Instead of focusing exclusively on physician-recommended behaviors, medical history, and other traditional factors, she dug into their personal lives. Some of the questions were: What do you love about yourself? What’s missing from your life? Do you feel like you are in touch with your life’s purpose?
“My patient’s answers often gave me more insight into why they might be sick than any lab test or exam could.”
– Lisa Rankin, MD
Eventually, Dr. Rankin was able to narrow her appointments down to two questions: “What do you think might lie at the root of your illness?” and “What does your body need in order to heal?” Many of the answers were about having more time for themselves, starting to pursue long-suppressed dreams, or forgiving themselves.
In Dr. Rankin’s ongoing study in major medical journals, there is strong evidence that the lifestyle choices you make can optimize your body’s relaxation response, counteract the stress response, and result in physiological changes leading to better health.
Your feel-great checklist
- Healthy relationships, including a strong network of family, friends, loved ones and colleagues.
- A meaningful (purpose-driven) way to spend your days, whether or not you work outside the home.
- A creative life, spiritual life, and sexual life, as well as a healthy financial life that allows you to meet all your essential needs.
- A healthy mental and emotional life, characterized by GRATITUDE and free of the variations of FEAR such as anxiety and depression.
- A healthy lifestyle that supports the physical health of the body with good nutrition, regular exercise, and adequate sleep.
Part 2: FIND YOUR CENTER
What Gratitude Can Do For You
Giving thanks is more than just a polite move: it can transform your mood, outlook and health too. When people appreciate the goodness they have received, they feel compelled to give back, says Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. This interdependence allows not only an individual but also a society as a whole to survive and prosper.
“Gratitude serves as a corrective,” says Emmons, and he suggests establishing a full-on gratitude ritual, whether it’s a morning meditation of what you’re thankful for, a bedtime counting of blessings or a gratitude journal.
The consistent effort to appreciate things in our world changes us for the better on many levels. Here’s how:
You’ll Feel Happier
In a seminal study by Emmons, subjects who wrote down one thing for which they were grateful every day reported being 25% happier for a full 6 months after following this practice for just three weeks. If you are familiar with the science of neurogenesis, studies have found that it takes 21 – 28 days to build a new neuronet, a new behavioral habit.
In a University of Pennsylvania study, subjects wrote letters of gratitude to people who had done them a major service but had never been fully thanked. These subjects reported substantially decreased symptoms for depression for as long as a month.
You’ll Boost Your Energy Levels
In Emmon’s gratitude-journal studies, those who regularly wrote down things for which they were thankful consistently reported an ever-increasing sense of vitality.
You’ll Get Healthier
A gratitude practice has also been associated with improved kidney function, reduced blood pressure and stress hormone levels, and a stronger heart. Statistically, 33% of those who practice gratitude exercise more and sleep an extra half-hour a night.
You’ll Be More Resilient
When we notice kindness and other gifts that benefit us, our brains become wired (neurogenesis) to seek out the positives in any situation, even dire ones. As a result, we’re better at bouncing back from loss and trauma.
“A grateful stance toward life is relatively immune to both fortune and misfortune.”
– Robert Emmons, professor of psychology
You’ll Improve Your Relationships
A 2012 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study of more than 300 coupled people found that those who felt more appreciated by their partner were more likely to appreciate their partner in return.
You’ll Be A Nicer Person
People can’t help but pay gratitude forward. When appreciation is expressed, it triggers a biological response in the recipient’s brain, including a surge of the feel-good chemical dopamine. So when you express gratitude toward a spouse, a colleague or a friend, both the sender and the recipient feels the gratitude.
Keeping a Gratitude Journal
Recording our thoughts, by hand or electronically, helps us focus them. It gives us time to understand better the meaning and importance of people, events, and our surroundings. Here is how to maximize the benefits:
- Go for depth rather than breadth. Take a moment to think about the things in your life that you are thankful for. This will help you truly savor what you appreciate and keep your journal from becoming simply a list of nice thoughts.
- Write consistently. Every day works best, but don’t give yourself a bad time because you missed a day. Be grateful that you have the information in the first place.
- Don’t think of this as just one more self-improvement project. It’s an opportunity to re-wire our brains to see our entire world through new eyes of appreciation.
Yes, You Can Live With Intent
What do we mean when we talk about intention? Finding your purpose can bring new meaning to your days. Intentions are conscious desires to change something. By thinking about our intents, cultivating and expressing them, we create the climate in which they’re more likely to happen.
In the Buddhist tradition, intention is about living each moment in keeping with what matters most to you and living in accord with your deepest values.
– Mallika Chopra, author
There is solid evidence that our thoughts and our beliefs can affect our own health. Just look at the placebo effect in which a sham treatment produces positive results merely because the patient believes it will. Our minds have a powerful effect on our bodies – and our lives.
So how do you use intention to improve your life – to fulfill your deepest longings?
You can ask your own ‘inner guidance’ to give you the answers to your most important questions. Here is a HeartMath process to connect to your inner guidance:
- Focus your attention in the area of the heart. Imagine your breath is flowing in and out of your heart or chest area, breathing a little slower and deeper than usual.
- Inhale 5 seconds, exhale 5 seconds (or whatever rhythm is comfortable).
- Make a sincere attempt to experience a feeling of gratitude for something in your life… and continue experiencing this appreciation.
- Now, from this place of appreciation or gratitude, ask your inner guidance to ‘speak’ to you regarding your greatest desire/intention.
- Be patient; the answer(s) will come. Quietly observe any subtle changes in attitude or feelings.
- If you received some beneficial insights from your “inner guidance,” then write them down and commit to sustaining them.
Part 3: EAT, PLAY, THRIVE
Yoga, Pilates and Tai chi
These ancient practices have powerful health and mood benefits, according to mounting science.
These ‘mindful’ classes have more than 40 million Americans in practice. These practices are not only great stress reducers, but also just great exercise. Virtually any type of yoga, Pilates, and tai chi improves strength, balance and flexibility explains John P. Porcari, a clinical exercise physiologist.
But it’s not just about the body. You will be encouraged to focus on breathing, relaxation, and meditation. And all of this mindfulness has a real-world benefit: a study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that women who practice these techniques once a week recover from stress faster than those who don’t.
You can also get slim with these practices. A large study in the Journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine confirms that women get lean in these classes: practicing at least once a week for four years or more staves off middle-age spread.
Guys are discovery ‘mindful’ fitness in record numbers – and research says that’s a very good thing.
From Hollywood brass and NFL linebackers, to regular joes looking to get fit, men are turning to the ancient practices to build muscle, improve balance, and flexibility – and to get the benefits of ‘mindful’ training, probably best known for stress relief. A 2016 poll estimates that men make up 28% of the current classes.
Here are some of the obvious benefits for men:
- More Satisfaction. Men who participated in these practices had a better body image and improved sex life.
- Reduced Stress. These practices reduced stress, anxiety, and depression while improving memory.
- Less Anxiety. When Vietnam vets with PTSD practiced ‘mindful’ fitness, their symptoms lessened, and police cadets, taking just 6 classes, reported reduced tension and anger.
- Improved Balance. After 5 months of practice, men had substantially better posture and balance.
- Healthier Heart. Daily practice is linked to lower blood pressure and cholesterol in older men.
- Better Sleep. Regular practice improves sleep quality and duration.
Can You Shed Pounds on a Mindfulness Diet?
Focusing your senses on a few raisins may sound odd, but mindful eating exercises are leading to weight-loss success.
Most of us have that one food we automatically crave when we’re stressed. We may find ourselves mindlessly munching when we’re bored or when we’re watching TV.
The good news: it’s possible to train ourselves to become more conscious of every bite through a practice known as mindful eating. Research suggests this strategy could vastly improve our relationship with food by reducing stress-related overeating – preventing weight gain in the process.
Mindful eating requires a change in the way you think about food. Instead of automatically finishing everything on your plate, you learn to pay attention to what your body needs – and what it doesn’t.
“Mindful eating allows people to enjoy a relaxed relationship with food – one that doesn’t require a constant struggle between willpower and temptation,” says Sandra Aamodt, a neuroscientist and the author of Why Diets Make Us Fat.
The secret to a weight-loss strategy is exercise and mindful eating habits. Great questions to ask yourself are: Am I hungry or am I full? Do I need food or something else? Becoming better attuned to your body’s signals may weaken your eating-out-of-boredom instinct. Research has linked mindfulness to reduced binge eating, less emotional eating and decreased body weight.
Nine Ways to Eat in the Moment (and Love It)
These are simple strategies for connecting with your hunger and avoiding stress snacking. People make some 200 decisions a day about food and drink – from what to cook for dinner – to whether they should order the tall or grande’.
To tune into your hunger cues and become a more mindful eater, try these:
- Start with: Do I really want this? Taking a brief pause to ask this question before indulging in a habit to stave off boredom or fatigue helps you gauge your real hunger level.
- Actually sit down. In a study from the University of Surrey in England, published in the Journal of Health Psychology, found that people who ate while sitting consumed less food than those who eat on the go.
- Be an Observer. Just notice the aroma, the flavor, and how attractive a dish looks – just platting it in interesting ways ups the pleasure factor and reduces the need to eat more to gain pleasure.
- Have lunch anywhere but your desk. Multitasking at your desk while eating will leave you less than satisfied, and you may look to dessert or seconds to fulfill that need.
- Go wild with Thai takeout…Or any other ethnic cuisine. In eating new dishes, you are likely to slow down, taste the spices, and savor the new flavors. This shifts you out of autopilot eating.
- Observe the crunch effect. In a study from Brigham Young and Colorado State universities, those who paid attention to the noise they made while eating their meals ate 45% less than those who ate without paying attention. The “crunch effect” suggests that the sound of food is a key sensory cue that helps us regulate how much we consume.
- Follow the rule of two. Courtesy of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab: order a reasonable entrée, plus any two other things that you really want, whether that’s a glass of pinot and an appetizer or a piece of pie. “People report eating about 25% less, because it doesn’t leave them feeling deprived,” says Wansink, the director of Food and Brand lab at Cornell.
- Clean that cluttered kitchen. We’re likely to overeat by as much as 34% when our kitchens are a mess of newspapers on the table, unopened mail on the counter, and chairs in disarray.
- End the meal on a favorite. Save the best for last. “The more satisfied you are after a meal, the less likely you are to eat a lot later,” says Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and the author of Eating Mindfully. So if dinner is chicken, mashed potatoes, salad and fruit, but it’s all about the spuds, end on those. The food gods never said we couldn’t have mashed potatoes for dessert.
Finding Your Flow
Losing yourself in something – whether a 5K run or a guitar solo – is a decades old secret to happiness that is gaining new traction today.
Flow has been defined as the state of being totally and blissfully immersed in a task, to the exclusion of just about everything else, including one’s self. Flow has the following characteristics:
- Intense and focused concentration on what one is doing in the present moment
- Merging of action and awareness
- Loss of awareness of oneself
- A sense that one can control one’s actions because one knows how to respond to whatever happens next.
- A sense that time has passed faster than normal.
- The experience of the activity is intrinsically rewarding, such that often the goal is just an excuse for the process.
Any of us can experience flow under the right circumstances. If you look at the original research, it was found that “people were happiest when they were engaged in activities that challenged them.”
Here are a few final hints for finding flow.
- Try not to dwell on past mistakes or fret over future ones.
- Find something that you enjoy intrinsically, just for the sake of doing it, something that will challenge you.
- Then dive in – and be patient.
In other words, don’t go looking for flow. Do what you love and it will find you.
Summarized from MINDFULNESS: The New Science of Health and Happiness
TIME Magazine SPECIAL EDITION
September 2, 2016
by “The Editors of Time”